[What precisely is a response to the drones? Recently Teju Cole introduced drones in first lines of well-known fiction works and got more tweets than any of the current drone strikes. Almost simultaneously, Himanshu Suri (aka HEEMS) released the video of his "Soup Boys" single which feature drones. Let us just say that while Pitchfork.tv is not necessarily concerned with Yemen or Pakistan or Mali and drones, they gushed about Soup Boys and its politics. There is both creativity and critique at the heart of these efforts - and where legally or morally we seem to be getting no where, perhaps creativity is the only ethical space left to marshall a defense. In that vein, I am very pleased to feature a guest post by AJK with another creative comment. Enjoy. - sepoy]
An Architectural Defense From Drones
I am not an architect. I wanted to be one, back in the day. I wanted to be many things, but I never wanted to be a lawyer. And yet…
My primary defense mechanism in law school was to get interested in non-law things. Lurking at the school of Jewish, Islamic, and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, reading Wael Hallaq and James C. Scott, and most fortunately, auditing a course at the wonderful Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. Iain Fraser‘s “Extreme Architecture” taught a wholly different type of problem-solving than dry & detached legal reasoning. We took weeks learning about different types of tents, then went on to outer space, military bases, and St. Louis. All the while, the point was to be empathetic to individuals and find livable solutions for them. Empathy was a very alien concept to embrace coming from law, however.
The idea for my final project, an architectural defense against drone warfare, came from the realization that law had no response to drone warfare. My own understanding of the ongoing [War on Terror pseudonym] as a civil rights issue is irrelevant, we only learn civil rights as a historical happening, not a current struggle. But architecture has a proud anti-legal tradition. Architecture is a way to protect people when law chooses not to.
Drones work by detecting patterns, identifying individuals, and extracting data. I dreamed up Shura City (named in honor of Farah Jan’s photoessay on Quetta) to fight against drones with humanity and community. The city is a “black box” impenetrable to data miners and military-trained individuals but it is not a prison. It is instead a gated community, providing its society with sunshine and safety from the scary world outside.
It is at best expensive and at worst impossible to build armor that can deflect any American bomb. Shura City instead uses inscrutability as its armor, finding more solace in Said than in Vauban. Though its outer shell is fixed, Shura City’s inner walls can be moved to provide for growing families, heated feuds, or just for the change of it when Farah Abla decides she wants to be an interior designer. Its windows are protected by computerized mashrabiyas that blink and recombine into various QR codes to jam leering cameras. Its expansive courtyard is protected by latticework with backlit (by color-changing LED) windows that allow for sunshine for children and stars for young lovers, but also make face detection tricky with color blocks and changing shadows. The zebras know each others’ names, but the lion only sees stripes.
Badgirs and minarets do their part to provide wild fluctuations of temperature (so that individual bodies are difficult to identify with infrared) and to provide high-wattage radio towers to interfere with wireless communication. The latter of which was inspired by my father’s story of growing up near a radio tower and listening to the Cincinnati Reds by plugging pilfered speakers into a chainlink fence. True, inhabitants of Shura City will have to turn in their Macbooks and tablets for ethernet connections, but this is a small price to pay.
The goal of Shura City was to celebrate humanity in the face of the mechanization of war and the mechanization of killing. I wanted to create a vibrant, colorful, fun, and peaceful place for the populations victimized by drone warfare. I wanted to give them the opportunity to create their own community far from the invasive eyes, nose, and tongue of otherwise-faceless robots. I wanted to create the same gated community I was fortunate enough to grow up in and export it to people facing far worse fears than small drugs and sleazy parties.
Ever since Napoleon entered Egypt, “Westerners” have found the “Eastern” city impenetrable. My goal was to armor Shura city in Orientalism and to turn the empire’s strongest weapons: technology, reorder, and arrogance, against themselves. It is time for the Bantustans to protect themselves against outside interference, to say “don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Shura City is not a finished product (as if the sketches fooled you) but an idea, celebrating collective effort, organic change, and insider humor – in other words, society – in the face of a binary code that only sees us in binaries. Shura City is a hope. I hope it will work.